Written by Sri Swami Chandrashekarendra
When people nowadays talk of "sati" or "sahagamana" they mean it to be
a custom in which the widow is forcibly thrown into the funeral pyre of
her husband. We do not know for sure whether such an act of cruelty was
indeed committed at any time in the past in any part of our land, that
forcibly pushing a widow into the funeral pyre of her husband. In any
sati has never been a widely practised custom. Only women of exemplary
chastity and devotion, who did not wish to live after the passing of
husband, resorted to sahagamana. I have heard stories of such pativratas
in my childhood. When the relatives lamented, "Oh, you are burning
yourself alive, "the widows exclaimed, "This fire does not burn me. I am
dying in the warmth of my husband's embrace." Such noble women died
with a smile on their lips.
When Hanuman set the Asoka woods ablaze with his burning tail, Sita
remained unhurt because of her pativratya. When Kumarilabhatta was
being scorched in the burning heap of rice-husk, he felt it cool in the
presence of Sankara. Because of her supreme devotion to her husband
the funeral pyre was as comforting as sandal-paste to a woman
immolating herself. It seems even the cloth of such women were not
consumed by the fire and were removed from the burning body to be
cherished with devotion.
A wife of exemplary pativratya falls dead on the death of her husband.
the story of Kannagi we come across such an example of devotion. When
the Pandyan king dies owing to his profound feeling of guilt, his queen
also dies with him. There is a similar story told of Padmavati, wife of
Jayadeva, author of the Gita-Govindam. In order to test her devotion for
her husband, the queen lightheartedly
tells her that Jayadeva, who had
been out on a journey, was dead. Thereupon Padmavati falls dead. The
queen is filled with remorse for her thoughtlessness and it is said that
Jayadeva was able to restore his wife to life with the grace of Krsna.
Only women highly devoted to their husbands resorted to sahagamana.
They were not forcibly thrown into the fire and were indeed prevented
from taking such an extreme step. When Pandu died, Madri, one of his
two wives and mother of Nakula and Sahadeva, ascended the funeral
pyre of her husband as expiation for her being the cause of his death.
great men who permitted this act of sacrifice prevented Kunti, the
of the two wives, from taking a similar step. They said to her:" Desist
such an extreme act. Your duty now is to bring up your own children as
well as Madri's."
When Pukazhanar, father of Apparsvamigal (he had not yet come to be
called by that name--he was then Marul Nikkiyar), died his wife
immolated herself in her husband's funeral pyre. This story is told in
Periyapuranam. The chastity of Madiniyar's daughter was even of a
higher order. Her name was Tilakavati. She was young and not yet
married. It was her devotion to her husband-to-be that makes her a
memorable character. She had been betrothed to Kalippakayar who was
commander-in-chief of the Pallava army. But at the same time
Pukazhanar died word came that the young Kalippakayar had been killed
in battle. The young Tilakavati decided at once to put an end to her
became his (Kalippakayar's) wife the moment I was betrothed to him. I
will not look upon anybody else as my husband. Since he is gone I too
follow him in death. "Then Appar, that is Marul Nikkiyar, said, to his
sister: "What will I do without my parents and without you? I am such a
small boy. I too will accompany you to the other world." Tilakavati had
now no choice but to change her mind so that she could look after her
young brother. (True to her name she has remained as ornament to
womanhood). Later her brother embraced Jainism with the new name of
Dharmasena and it was she who weaned him from it. She was indeed
instrumental in his becoming the poet-saint celebrated as Apparsvamigal.
In Rajasthan there were so many noble women who earned a place in
history by resorting to sahagamana.
I should like to emphasise here that there was no compulsion for a widow
to ascend the funeral pyre of her husband. But women who voluntarily
resorted to sahagamana were revered and the sastras supported their
action. Even today we hear rare cases of "sati", though the law does not
permit it and the relatives dissuade such women from taking the extreme
step. This seems to me particularly worthy of appreciation. In the old
the circumstances were favourable for the widow to perish in the fire
with her husband. So, without being compelled by others and urged only
by the desire to attain to a higher world, one or two widows immolated
themselves. But today, in the age of Kali and of reforms, the
circumstances are not favourable for such an act of sacrifice. So,
this, if a woman decides to follow her husband in death it must be out
true devotion to him.
I have often impressed upon you the importance of gurukulavasa. Like
sati it is now a forgotten tradition. We find it difficult nowadays to
gurukula. So if one or two boys come forward to study with a preceptor
his home and are prepared to observe bhiksacarya (that is begging for
their food) their example must be considered worthier than that of
brahmacarins of the past.
Like sanyasa, sahagamana has never been compulsory. I will tell you an
important reason for this. The dharmasastras deal extensively with the
conduct of widows. If everybody was expected to be a sannyasin there
would be, as I said before, no need for cremation to be brought under
purview of the sastras. Similarly, if every widow was expected to
immolate herself in the funeral pyre of her husband, where would be the
need for a separate code of conduct for them (that is for the widows)?
Nobody can foretell when the hand of death will strike. It can come in
one's childhood or during the time one is a householder. So everyone
cannot be expected to die a sannyasin. If the sastras insist that on the
death of a man his widow must also be cremated with him, then there
will be no need for codifying "vidhava dharma"(code of conduct for